‘No part of Greek history should come home to us like the third century bc,’ William Tarn wrote in 1913. ‘It is the only period that we can in the least compare with our own.’ And yet the third century – standing midway between the classical age and the coming of Rome, undocumented by any intact surviving source – gets little attention even from specialists, despite the many intriguing figures who helped shape it. Among the most intriguing was Antigonus, nicknamed Gonatas, a member of the tiny cadre of self-appointed rulers we know today as the Hellenistic kings.
His grandfather, Antigonus the One-Eyed, had been one of the Diadochi (‘successors’), the generals who served under Alexander the Great and fought to control his empire after his death in 323. They gravitated to separate quadrants and entered into a near constant state of war, jostling for territory and competing to dominate the Greek city states. After two decades of struggle each took to wearing a royal diadem and minting coins that proclaimed him a basileus, ‘king’, though it was often unclear just what that meant. Gonatas inherited the title but little else. By the time his father, Demetrius the Besieger, abdicated in 284 bc, the once great Antigonid empire had shrunk to a pitiful set of harbours and ports. Its rivals to the south and east, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids in Asia, were far more firmly established and no doubt entertained hopes of finishing off their weaker, poorer rival and gobbling up his domain. Yet Antigonus went on to survive, and often thrive, for 45 years, and bequeathed a royal seat to his son, Demetrius II.
Even with a compelling biography at its core, the story of the third century is difficult to narrate. The Greek world was no longer dominated by Athens and Sparta, whose antagonism gives such clarity to the high classical age; although both cities remained prominent, new powers rose and declined with astonishing speed. Around the perimeter of the Hellenic sphere – in Macedon to the north, Egypt to the south, and the interior of Anatolia to the east – the incipient kingdoms of the Diadochi competed for supremacy. These monarchs had the unfortunate habit of selecting their children’s names from a limited pool, creating enough Ptolemies, Philas and Alexanders to make chroniclers, and their readers, despair. Antigonus at least has a widely used epithet to distinguish him from his namesakes, even if no one today knows quite what ‘Gonatas’ meant (‘knock knees’ is one plausible theory).
Robin Waterfield wisely takes the city states of European Greece as the backdrop for Antigonus’ life and the arena where his influence was principally felt. The Making of a King is only in part a biography of Antigonus. It also details the decline, economic devastation and political fragmentation of post-classical Greece, and makes plain why the Stoic and Epicurean schools, both founded during Antigonus’ youth, became so central to Greek intellectual life. Those who continued to navigate the public sphere needed the comfort, offered by the Stoics, that virtuous action led always to happiness, whatever its outcome. Those who preferred to let politics go and pursue private pleasures found in Epicureanism a dignified means of escape.
Antigonus was born in 319 bc, four years after Alexander the Great had died without a viable heir. For much of his youth, Antigonus’ father and grandfather were leading players in the chaotic contest for Alexander’s vast, three-continent empire. The Greeks were in two minds about the Antigonids. On the one hand they regarded them as foreign strongmen who threatened Hellenic autonomy. But they also saw them as a lesser evil than other Macedonian warlords, some of whom installed garrisons wherever they could. The Antigonids made ‘freedom for Greece’ a family rallying cry and appeared to be sincere – until they too began installing garrisons. Antigonus the One-Eyed held various strategic ports in the Aegean and mainland Greece; Demetrius the Besieger controlled western Asia. In 301 bc Antigonus was killed at the battle of Ipsus and Demetrius was stripped of most of his lands. He hung onto power by way of his holdings in Greece, principally Corinth – the gateway to the Peloponnese – and Piraeus, the fortified harbour of Athens. Antigonus Gonatas, acting as his father’s lieutenant, began leading troops in his early twenties, keeping watch on these vital possessions while Demetrius went off to pursue adventures elsewhere.
Macedon, the homeland of all the Diadochi, was still the ultimate source of legitimacy in the early third century, even though the campaigns of Alexander had scattered its army and leadership across two million square miles. Demetrius briefly occupied its throne but estranged himself from its people with his arrogant, insensitive behaviour; Antigonus wasn’t welcome there at the time of his father’s death, in 283 bc, although that would soon change. Marauding Celts from the north and west ravaged the country and led to the death of the monarch (one of Ptolemy’s sons). Antigonus staged an ambush that killed or drove out a large body of the invaders, and hired those who remained to serve as his mercenaries. With these new troops he faced down other claimants to the throne and became, in his early forties, king of Macedon.
As the son of a famous failure, Antigonus was determined not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Demetrius’ obsession with reclaiming Anatolia, the family’s original power base, had made an enemy of his kinsman Seleucus, who controlled much of Asia and might have been a valuable ally. Even before he’d taken power in Macedon, Antigonus signed a mutual non-aggression pact with Seleucus’ son and successor, Antiochus, giving his rival a free hand in Asia in exchange for non-interference in Europe. Unlike other treaties of the period, this agreement was destined to last. ‘Since the death of Alexander the Great,’ Waterfield writes, ‘the only international law was that might was right. It took about forty years for this destructive cycle to be broken, and it was Antigonus and Antiochus who broke it.’ He plausibly suggests that Stratonice, Antigonus’ sister and Antiochus’ wife (she’d been his stepmother first), helped ensure the success of the pact.
With nothing to fear from the east, Antigonus could focus on his rival to the west, Pyrrhus of Epirus. An exact contemporary of Antigonus, he might have taken the throne of Macedon himself but chose instead to pursue opportunities in Italy, where Greeks were trying to hold their own against Rome and Carthage. After various failures and costly victories (of the kind that now bear his name), Pyrrhus returned to Greece and attacked Antigonus, hoping to boost his flagging reputation. With the help of hired Celts he took much of Macedon, but foolishly allowed his mercenaries to plunder the city of Aegae and even ransack some revered royal tombs. The destruction came to light in 1977 when an almost empty tomb was uncovered near modern-day Vergina; two other spectacular sites, containing the family of Alexander the Great, had luckily remained intact. The Macedonians turned against Pyrrhus and supported the return of Antigonus, who had managed to hold a few coastal cities. In subsequent battles in southern Greece, Antigonus got the upper hand. Pyrrhus was ignominiously killed in Argos after an old woman hurled a roof tile at him.
The death of Pyrrhus removed one threat to Antigonid rule, but another soon arose, engineered by Ptolemy II of Egypt. The Ptolemies, with their enormous wealth, had for decades subsidised efforts to weaken Antigonid power, especially in the cities of mainland Greece. Now, in the 260s bc, Athens and Sparta led an alliance that, with the help of Ptolemy’s money and grain ships, sought to oust the Macedonians from Greece. The Chremonidean War is named for the Athenian statesman who rallied his countrymen to stand and fight for their freedom, much as Demosthenes had done a hundred years earlier. Waterfield takes us carefully through the grim six-year conflict, drawing attention to events that are too little known, given their importance. The battle of Chaeronea in 338 bc, where Athens and Thebes were defeated by Philip of Macedon, is often regarded as the last hurrah of the autonomous Greek city state, but the Chremonidean War puts a more definitive end to it. Had Athens prevailed, it might have regained some measure of its ancient power and pride, despite its reliance on Ptolemy.
The rare alliance of Athens and Sparta created a powerful force, but Antigonus still controlled Corinth and therefore the isthmus between the two allied cities. Over the decades this single strategic stronghold, secured by garrison troops, proved more valuable to the Antigonids than a whole army of hired Celts. Operating from Corinth, Antigonid troops stopped the Spartans from marching north in significant numbers. Sparta and Athens couldn’t join forces, so Antigonus had the advantage of dealing with each in turn. Athens was the more vulnerable target because of its large population. Using a cruel but reliable strategy, Antigonus surrounded the city to starve it into submission. (To control a dog, he once said, requires more than a leash; the beast must also be made lean.) Ptolemy sent ships north to relieve the suffering city and draw off Antigonid forces; the forts his men hastily built can still be seen on remote headlands around Attica. But Antigonus had control of the sea, thanks to the port of Piraeus, and prevented some of Ptolemy’s relief ships from getting through. In 262, after enduring yet another horrific famine, Athens surrendered. Ptolemy’s fleet was defeated at Cos the following year.
Antigonus’ grandfather had compared Athens to a lighthouse for its effect on public opinion in Greece. For more than forty years the Antigonids had hoped to win the city’s endorsement, and had at times succeeded, although relations had always broken down and hostilities recommenced. The Chremonidean War was the final breakdown. It laid bare the reality of Antigonid overlordship in Greece and the depth of Athenian resentment. Antigonus took total control of the city, appointing its leaders and reinserting armed troops on the Mouseion, a fortified hill that his father had briefly garrisoned decades before. Philochorus, a leading intellectual who had vocally opposed the Antigonids, was executed on a charge of collaboration with Ptolemy. Some measures were relaxed after a few years, but only because, as Waterfield writes: ‘Antigonus came to realise that he had broken the spirit of this generation of Athenians.’ More than fifty years later, with the backing of Roman power, Athens finally threw off the Antigonid yoke, as demonstrated by the many inscribed stones on which the name of Antigonus or Demetrius has been obliterated with hammer and chisel.
While Athens longed to repudiate Antigonus, other Greek cities deified him – or so Waterfield claims, largely on the basis of recovered inscriptions. The problem with these stones, however, as Waterfield recognises, is that they often can’t be securely dated, so mentions of ‘King Antigonus’ may refer not to Gonatas but to his homonymous grandfather or grandson. The evidence is ambiguous, but Antigonus was probably given cult worship in Greece, an honour that was becoming common for dynastic kings. Whether he fostered such cults himself is harder to answer. According to Plutarch, ‘Antigonus the Elder’ – which may be Gonatas but is more likely his grandfather – cast ridicule on the idea of divinisation: ‘The slave who deals with my chamber pot knows better.’ On Antigonus’ coins, the god Pan is often depicted in a way that evokes the king’s features, and wears a conspicuous diadem (the distinctive headgear of Hellenistic kings) just under his goatish horns. The bestial Pan wasn’t often seen as a desirable avatar, but Antigonus’ victory over the Celts had evidently been aided by some kind of panic – the work of the god – in the invaders’ ranks. So Pan could be seen as a defender of Hellenism against a barbarian foe, and hence an important ally in the contest for Greek hearts and minds.
Poets and thinkers were also valuable assets, as the Macedonian kings had long understood. In previous centuries, Euripides, Aristotle and other luminaries had accepted invitations to join the royal court in Pella, the capital of Macedon. Antigonus tried to attract Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoics, but, according to a letter that may or may not be genuine, he felt too frail to make the journey and sent two of his students instead. The Stoics were at this time formulating a theory of kingship that stressed the duties rather than the privileges of a monarch, and Antigonus seems to have been influenced by their ideas. In an anecdote preserved by Athenaeus, he told his son, whom he’d seen abusing his subjects: ‘Don’t you know that our kingship is a noble sort of enslavement?’ He’d once rebuked his father for sending soldiers into battle at too great risk to their lives. Waterfield sees him as the embodiment of a new era of ‘second-generation kings’ determined to demonstrate virtues beyond martial prowess. ‘It was possible now for kings to be more than warlords,’ Waterfield writes. ‘They could no longer treat their subjects as sources of revenue to enhance their own glory.’
Aratus of Soli, a hymnist and didactic poet, resided at the court of Antigonus for many years. The Phaenomena he wrote there attracts few readers today, but it was a model for Virgil and Ovid, and Cicero was one of several Romans who translated it into Latin. It’s a farmer’s almanac, a survey first of celestial phenomena and then of weather signs; the two sections together (perhaps originally two separate poems) make up more than 1100 lines of sober, uninspired hexameter verse. According to tradition, Antigonus prompted Aratus to undertake the work, though why he would want it is hardly clear. More useful to his regime was the Hymn to Pan that Aratus wrote on the occasion of Antigonus’ wedding to his niece Phila. The poem, now lost, celebrated Antigonus’ victory over the Celts. If the Phaenomena was indeed composed at Antigonus’ request, it’s noteworthy that it contains no praise of the king or even a dedication to him. It would seem that Antigonus, unlike most of his fellow monarchs, did not demand a quid pro quo from his court poets.
Another writer at the court of Antigonus was Hieronymus of Cardia, who chronicled the years that followed the death of Alexander the Great. He was remarkable not only as a historian – to judge by the fragments we have of his lost work – but as a soldier of fortune who lived much of the history he wrote. Taken prisoner in his thirties by the elder Antigonus, he was put in charge of a dangerous operation, harvesting bitumen by boat from the middle of the Dead Sea. His ships were attacked by a fleet of Arabs armed with bows and most of his men were killed, but Hieronymus escaped. He fought in the Antigonid army at Ipsus and accompanied Demetrius on his anguished retreat. Demetrius later put him in charge of Thebes as part of his effort to subjugate Greece, and he finally landed in the retinue of the younger Antigonus. He is said to have lived beyond a hundred, composing a history of the Diadochi that was well known in its day for its accuracy and verve.
Defeating Athens and Ptolemy in the Chremonidean War was the height of Antigonus’ power. In the last twelve years of his life he faced challenges from two aggregations of Greek states, the Achaean and Aetolian leagues, and from his nephew, another Alexander, who led a rebellion against him. He lost, retook and lost again the city of Corinth – a place he desired, Plutarch says, as a lover does his beloved. The Ptolemies kept up their pressure at sea and forced him to fight to maintain his Aegean bases. Then, as with the Celts at the start of his reign, a northern invader emerged: the Dardani, an expansive Balkan people, began to encroach on the Macedonian homeland, as they continued to do in the time of Demetrius II, Antigonus’ son and heir. Though diminished in power and influence, the dynasty survived until it fell to the Romans in the following century.